Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet III: MASTERWORKS VI
March 25, 2017
Toward the beginning of the 20th century, a composer around the age of 40 took a summer trip to spend time with his mistress. This passionate sojourn contributed to his composition of a dramatic evocation of the sea—a work that, although consequently tainted by scandal, went on to become one of his most enduring orchestral scores.
What’s curious about this story is that it describes both the first and last works on tonight’s program—and that the two composers transformed their experiences into entirely different kinds of music.
Tintagel (1917-19), by Arnold Bax (1883-1953), was inspired by the medieval Tintagel Castle, on the ocean cliffs in Cornwall. In an explanatory note, Bax says his intention was “simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff … on a sunny but not windless summer day.” Simply? Not quite, for he undercuts his claim by pointing to other associations entwined with the castle’s history. Besides Arthurian legend, Bax mentions Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, 19th-century opera’s most influential treatment of adulterous passion, noting that it’s quoted in the score. And although the solemn brass at the beginning sound out a striking musical analog to the castle on the cliffs, Tintagel is less a musical description of the scene than a confession of Bax’s anguish as he found himself torn between the demands of marriage and his passion for pianist Harriet Cohen (a passion represented by the glorious bittersweet second theme, which initially appears about two minutes in).
Bax’s long affair with Cohen had little impact on the reception of Tintagel, although her vital pianism left its mark on his output until the end of his life. In contrast, the early reception of La Mer (1903-05) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was seriously marred by his friends’ anger over his affair with Emma Bardac—although the piece itself bears little imprint of their relationship. Yes, La Mer is as sensual as Tintagel is. But where Bax’s sensuality is visceral, Debussy aims to capture the sensuality of the imagination. To the extent that La Mer is descriptive, it conveys not the external character of nature itself, but rather the memories of experiences of nature, what Debussy called his “inner landscape.”
La Mer was radical for its time. Its harmonies, as conductor Larry Loh puts it, are dense, putting extra pressure on performers to “make it transparent.” Furthermore, it avoids traditional forms, with their repetitions and developments, as well as the kind of juicy, hummable melodic material we hear in Bax. Rather, says Larry, La Mer “is a masterpiece of color.” And what rich color—every section of the orchestra is called on to play “at their top level.” No surprise that once audiences got used to its rhapsodic structure, La Mer was recognized as the most vividly orchestrated and dynamic musical description of the ocean in the repertoire. Conjuring up memories of the colors, textures, and even the scents of the ocean, it builds to the stormiest and most overwhelming climax Debussy ever composed.
Tintagel and La Mer are both big pieces. To provide a palate-cleanser, we precede La Mer on the second half with something airier, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). This overture is based on a pair of poems by Goethe. The first half represents the stillness of a becalmed sea, the second the excitement as the wind picks up—although there’s a surprise at the end. Mendelssohn was still a teen when he wrote it, but he had already tossed off such works of genius as the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His precociousness is just as evident here: even though he had seen the ocean only once, his music catches its quality with poise and lucidity.
Often, on thematic evenings like this one devoted to water music, the concerto doesn’t fit, since few concertos have programs. By a striking coincidence, as this concert was being planned, we learned that Zuill Bailey—a cellist we were hoping to bring to Syracuse—had just premiered a new concerto by Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). And that concerto happened to have a strong water connection.
Daugherty, long popular in Syracuse, is known for accessible music with roots in American culture (Metropolis Symphony, an homage to Superman) and politics (Rosa Parks Boulevard). This new work, Tales of Hemingway, offers responses to four narratives by one of our classic writers. Two of its four movements are inspired by Hemingway’s love of Spain: his celebration of the anti-fascists in For Whom the Bell Tolls and his description of the running of the bulls in A Farewell to Arms. But the others reflect on works about water. Daugherty describes the first movement (“The Big Two-Hearted River”) as “serene and passionate music that evokes … Hemingway’s … belief that one can be healed by the power of nature through exploring isolated outdoor terrains.” In contrast, the third movement (The Old Man and the Sea) serves as what Daugherty calls an “an elegy to the struggle of life and death between man and nature.”
Tales of Hemingway was written for Zuill and was inspired both by his interpretation of the Elgar Concerto (which he was playing when he and Daugherty first met) and by the special sound of his instrument. “Built in 1693 in Venice, it’s a very broad, robust, masculine cello, like an old soul telling a great wise story.” And although Daugherty didn’t communicate with him again until the piece was more or less finished, Zuill says that their first meeting obviously had its effect. “I remember sitting down and opening up this music. I started to play, and the first thing I noticed was that it really tapped into the basic voice of my cello. Beautiful lines, singable lines, accessible melodies.” Of course, this is Daugherty, so there are modern touches too, including, as Zuill points out, Flamenco influences to match Hemingway’s enthusiasm for Spain. There’s also some imaginative use of the Dies Irae, the plain-chant theme from the Latin Requiem Mass describing the “day of wrath”—a theme familiar at Symphoria concerts through its use in works by Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff.
I said that composer and soloist didn’t communicate until the piece was “more or less finished,” because Daugherty continued to work on it through the rehearsals. In fact, he made his final alteration verbally just as Zuill was going out on stage for the first performance. Add to this the sheer thrill of Daugherty’s magnificent orchestration, and it’s no surprise that Zuill found the experience “electrifyingly exhilarating.” We suspect that you will, too, especially given the responses of listeners so far. Zuill says that the audience “went ballistic” at the premiere—a believable claim to anyone who has heard the recording of that event, which won three Grammys, including one for the work itself and one for Zuill’s performance.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org